The Los Angeles That Was Never Built

Had these 13 grand architectural plans been executed, the city would look entirely different today

(Eric Lloyd Wright)

There seems to be a newfound fascination with the unbuilt. As urban planners are rethinking cities, historians of art and architecture are delving into the past, plucking from archives artistic renderings of residential communities, airports, transit systems, even theme parks that, for one reason or another, never came to fruition.

In 2004, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago gathered 80 drawings and models detailing the Windy City that could have been for "Unbuilt Chicago." The National Building Museum, in 2011, similarly presented a slew of monuments, bridges, museums and other structures—proposed, but never executed in the nation's capital—in its exhibition "Unbuilt Washington." And, most recently, the A+D Architecture and Design Museum took on Los Angeles, playing host to "Never Built: Los Angeles," a show featuring more than 100 stymied projects.

"It blows your mind," says Sam Lubell, co-curator of "Never Built: Los Angeles" and co-author of its accompanying book. "You think LA was always going to be a freeway city, it was always going to be a sprawling metropolis, but no. Things could have been extremely different."

Designers, in the last century, dreamed up complex green spaces, aquatic theme parks and airport helicabs.

"L.A., maybe more than almost anywhere, has this amazing capacity to imagine the future. And it has the talent to do it," says Lubell. He references the film industry and aerospace. "It is just a place where people go to be different. For better or worse, they go to dream."

Lubell and Greg Goldin, a curator at the A+D Museum, salvaged some of these squashed dreams from city archives, UCLA and the Getty Museum, among other collections. The projects reveal an alternate history, an unfamiliar skyline. But, more so, says Lubell, the bold plans beg city planners, considering today's architectural schemes, to ask an important question:

Are we too timid?

Doheny Ranch, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Doheny Ranch
(Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

"Talk about dreamers," says Lubell. For every Guggenheim or Fallingwater, American architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright had at least a couple of projects that never left the drawing board. The Huntington Hartford Sports Club was a members-only "play resort" complete with tennis courts, a swimming pool, game rooms, a dining room and a dancing hall that he schemed up for L.A.'s Runyon Canyon in 1947. But, even before that, there was Doheny Ranch.

"In the 1920s, the essence of hillside housing in L.A. was to cut and plant, just lop off the hillside and start putting boxes on top," says Lubell. "Frank Lloyd Wright was like, 'woah, woah, let's rethink this.'"

Wright was a proponent for what he called "organic architecture," meaning structures that were built to fit into the landscape's natural dips and rises. He wanted houses to be "beautiful in California in the way that California herself is beautiful."

So, in 1923, he sketched plans for a residential community-this "hanging gardens of Babylon" kind of thing, says Lubell-craftily built into the hillside of what is now Beverly Hills. Called Doheny Ranch, after the oilman Edward Laurence Doheny who owned the 411-acre site Wright had in mind, the development had beautiful walled gardens, retaining walls and bridges. Doheny, however, was entangled in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, and the project was shelved.


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